Audio Version (11:28)
Following on from my previous article, ‘Is My Boss (or Co-Worker) Narcissist?’ (you can read it here.) and in celebration of the release of the second episode in my video mini-series, Narcissism in the Workplace, today I’m delving a bit deeper into the topic of narcissistic abuse. (N.B. This is a reissue of an article I originally published in (March 2022.)
To watch Episode 2, click here.
(Note: Whilst I will focus on work-based relationships in this article, the same pattern of abuse can also be used to describe toxic personal relationships as well as cultic situations.)
The Abuse Cycle
There is a very distinct cycle that all narcissists (and people with other antisocial personality traits and disorders) follow, from which they rarely deviate. The story that I hear from clients who’ve experienced narcissistic abuse is always a variation on the following:
‘They thought I was great at first. I felt that I could do no wrong. I considered us to be great friends. We did so much together, and I shared stuff I’d never told anyone. I felt so valued and safe.
However, after a while, they started to pick holes in everything I did, and now, I can’t seem to do anything right. They undermine me in public and have begun to turn other people against me.
Now, they can’t even bring themselves to look at me. They ignore me and won’t return my calls/emails, even when I’m desperate for an answer on something important.
It’s got to the point that I keep second-guessing myself; my self-confidence and self-esteem are so low that I have no option but to leave. I need a job with less pressure – it’s clear that I can’t operate at this level. I feel so useless. Maybe I was never good at my job, but no one told me, or I never noticed.’
I cannot tell you how often I have heard this story; this demonstrates the classic narcissistic cycle of abuse.
The 4 Stages of Narcissistic Abuse
It’s important to note that the time each stage takes to complete varies from weeks to months and, in rare cases, years.
1. Idealisation (often referred to as ‘Love Bombing’)
During this stage, you can do no wrong. You may hear, ‘I can’t believe how in tune we are.’ ‘We are so alike!’ ‘I’m so glad we can work so well together.’ “We’re so aligned”.
The abuser will include you in everything initially – they may even overshare and prompt you to do the same. This is part of the con – they want to build your trust quickly and get you to let your guard down.
It’s when you believe you can trust this person implicitly that you may divulge things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. This ‘intelligence’ is just what the narcissist wants; it will undoubtedly get noted and used against you at some later date.
Their attention may feel a bit overwhelming or even disingenuous during this time. Still, you go along with it because it feels good to be relied on and be part of the ‘inner group’, especially if you haven’t had that kind of attention before.
You’ll feel so valued that you ignore small red flags or the gentle nudge from your intuition telling you something’s wrong. After all, you’ve finally found a boss or co-worker that ‘gets’ you, and the possibilities seem endless! However, it doesn’t last.
Idealisation or Love Bombing is something to be aware of whenever you meet anyone new, no matter the circumstances. If a person bestows overwhelming positive attention on you from the outset, it’s a red flag. ‘Normal’ people don’t do that. Take your time in getting to know someone, professionally or personally. Beware of letting your guard down and sharing personal information too early. N.B. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.
You will notice a change in their behaviour after a while (and that time varies from person to person). It may be very subtle at first. For example, the narcissist may say or do one small thing that doesn’t seem like a big deal but leaves you wondering, ‘What was all that about?’ You will feel confused and unsettled, wondering what you could have done to provoke such a weird, out-of-character response.
You will find that these ‘small things’ become more frequent, but often they don’t seem big enough to challenge, so you let them go, somehow convincing yourself that it’s your imagination.
However, if you do decide to speak up, the narcissist will likely dismiss your concerns by saying something like, ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive’, ‘That’s just my sense of humour; you need to lighten up’, ‘I didn’t mean anything by it; stop being so sensitive’.
This dismissal is known as gaslighting. It’s an effective tool that abusers use to control the situation and keep you confused. When they do this, they expertly move the attention away from themselves and back onto you. Narcissists avoid accountability at all costs.
Devaluation is also when the narcissist often brings other people into the mix. They may ridicule you in front of others and talk about you behind your back.
Colleagues may start to treat you differently, and in extreme circumstances, you may get ostracised from the group as the narcissist begins to use your colleagues to increase their abuse. The technical term for people who do the narcissist’s bidding this way is ‘Flying Monkeys’.
After a while, you will undoubtedly become more unhappy and uncertain about your choices, ideas, and abilities. As a result, you may stop speaking up for fear of being ridiculed or shot down.
It’s important to note that the narcissist is now showing their true colours. In reality, they couldn’t be further from the kind, inclusive, supportive person they presented themselves as initially.
However, if they showed you who they were from the start of the relationship, they wouldn’t get away with it. So instead, they wear you down covertly, usually in a passive-aggressive way, employing manipulative and underhand tactics.
Typically, when I press clients who have suffered at the hands of a narcissist, they will be able to recollect one seemingly small thing that triggered the behaviour change. Something the victim said or did at the time seemed so inconsequential that they thought nothing of it.
However, in retrospect, they can see that the narcissist took it badly. That’s because, deep down, narcissists have extremely low self-esteem and will often take the smallest perceived ‘slight’ as a personal attack and will come out fighting!
3. The Discard
Next comes the discard stage. A typical indicator that this phase has begun is when you discover that you are getting excluded from meetings, emails and other important communications that you need to be part of to do your job effectively. The abuser will deliberately keep you in the dark, making it difficult, if not impossible, for you to perform your duties.
When it gets to this point, the narcissist has likely worn you down so much that you can no longer operate at your best. You may even start to underperform because your confidence and self-esteem are so low that you can no longer rely on your abilities, second-guessing everything you do.
As a result, you find it hard to contribute effectively and feel in a consistently low mood. You may also exhibit signs of anxiety and depression, making finding joy in anything inside or outside work difficult. Narcissism is insidious – it affects every part of a victim’s life.
You are now no longer of any use to the narcissist. They have used and abused you to a point where it’s no fun for them anymore, and they are no longer getting the same amount of ‘fuel’ from you.
Usually, at this point, the narcissist sets your exit from the team or even the business in motion. Alternatively, it may have got so bad that you feel you have no alternative but to leave.
The discard phase is typically when people come to me for career support. They’ll tell me they need to find a job with less stress or want to ‘take a step down’. That’s when alarm bells ring for me.
These competent people may have had 10/20/30 or even 40 years working without ever having doubted their abilities or been spoken to about their alleged ‘underperformance’ previously. It’s a huge red flag to prompt me to dig deeper.
4. The Hoover
The Hoover phase happens when you become a threat to the narcissist, or they see you getting stronger. In either case, their perceived loss of control over you and the situation prompts them to ‘hoover’ you back in. Remember what I said in the previous article? One of the main traits of a narcissist is the need for absolute control.
From a ‘threat’ perspective, this usually takes the form of you threatening or telling someone in authority about their behaviour, making them look bad. They simply cannot have that. It may also happen if you resign. They will likely go into damage control mode.
From a strength perspective, if they perceive a shift in your demeanour, e.g. you start to understand what’s happening and put in solid boundaries, they will see that as a loss of control, so they will need to stop it.
In personal relationships, this phase occurs when the abuser has left (usually because they’ve found a new source of narcissistic supply), but it hasn’t worked out. Alternatively, the victim might leave the abuser. In either case, the abuser needs to ‘Hoover’ the victim back to meet their narcissistic supply needs.
Again, it’s about the abuser having power and control over the victim and proving they can get them back whenever they want.
The Hoover phase typically then shifts into ‘love bombing’, and the narcissistic cycle begins again.
Again, to watch the extended version of this article, click here. It is the second episode of my ‘Narcissism in the Workplace series:
In the first episode, I covered:
What Drives a Narcissist?
What are the Traits of a Narcissist?
Types of Narcissist
Who are the Victims of a Narcissist?
In the next video (Episode 3), I’ll cover the Duluth Power and Control Model (explaining coercive control), plus advice and top tips on how to deal with narcissism in the workplace.
In the final episode (Episode 4), I’ll be answering your questions on anything to do with narcissism. So, if you have anything you’d like me to address, either DM or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When watching the videos, please remember to like, comment and subscribe and hit that notification bell so you don’t miss new episodes as they’re released.
As always, thanks for your continued support.